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Southeast Asian Affairs 2005 LAOS IN 2004 Towards Subregional Integration: 1 0 Years on Vatthana Pholsena Introduction The year 2004 marked the tenth anniversary of the opening of the first Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge that permits travel by road between Vientiane and Nongkhai. The completion of the bridge seemed to signal the beginning of a new era. Wars in the region had frozen the project for almost three decades. As recently as 1987-88, Thailand and Laos were involved in a border dispute that escalated into a military conflict. The bridge therefore appeared to highlight a significant shift in the relationship between the two countries, with cooperation being privileged over confrontation. Yet, Martin Stuart-Fox sounded a note of caution when he wrote in 1995 that "the Friendship Bridge [serves] as a symbol of threat or hope, depending on perspective".1 His article in this annual was among the rare analyses of Laos' post-Cold War challenges regarding regional integration. The historian furthermore observed: "whether the bridge exists or not, Laos will still find it impossible to isolate itself from the changes now occurring in mainland Southeast Asia".2 His comment was accurate, albeit somewhat premature. The 1997 Asian financial crisis brutally hit all the Southeast Asian countries' economies and Laos began to have second thoughts over the direction of her own economic development;3 her rapprochement with China thus reached a new level during that period. Nevertheless, despite the general slowdown of regional projects in the aftermath of the Asian crisis, Laos' economic subregional integration was always to be an irreversible movement, favoured by all sides, i.e., the country itself, its neighbours (first and Vatthana Pholsena is Assistant Professor, Southeast Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore. 1 74Vatthana Pholsena foremost, Thailand and Vietnam) and international lending organizations, as well as China. As Stuart-Fox explained in 1995: "Transport routes and other communications between the principal member states — Thailand, China, Vietnam — cannot help but pass through Laos if long and costly detours are to be avoided."4 The road to development for Laos has to some extent become embodied in one expression, namely "land-linked", in the hope that the realization of this goal will conjure away the nation-state's fate as the only country in Southeast Asia with no direct access to the sea, thereby overcoming its remoteness from world markets.5 Bridges possibly best represent this vision, linking emblematically, if not economically, countries and symbolically transcending national boundaries. Perhaps to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening of the first Friendship Bridge, a second bridge opened in October 2004 that connects the province of Loei in northeastern Thailand to the province of Sayaboury in northwestern Laos. The opening ofthe small bridge — 1 10-metres long — saw the presence ofthe Thai and Lao foreign ministers, Surakiart Sathirathai and Somsavat Lengsavath. A few months earlier (in March), the first Thai-Lao joint cabinet retreat took place in Pakse (southern Laos), led by the two countries' prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and Bounyang Vorachit. A series of agreements were signed but most significantly, the two-day meeting marked the official start ofthe construction of the second Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge between the towns of Savannakhet (southern Laos) and Mukdahan (northeastern Thailand). It is scheduled to be completed in 2006. During the same month, the Thai government approved partial funding (amounting to 1.5 billion baht) for the construction ofanother Lao-Thai bridge, linking Huay Xai (northwestern Laos) and Chiang Rai (northern Thailand). China is expected to be the other investor.6 In the light of the accelerating development of the country's cross-border transport infrastructure, will Laos become the "heart of the region, the crossroads where trade routes intersect" in the twenty-first century?7 Ten years after the opening of the first Lao-Thai friendship bridge, the answer still cannot be but tentative. Towards a Land-linked Laos? The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Program plays an essential role in the process of moving towards the realization of this objective. Launched in 1992, this initiative involves the participation of six countries — Cambodia, China (Yunnan Province), Laos, Myanmar, Thailand andVietnam — as well as the strategic support of the Asian...


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